February 16: Hungarian culture has somehow produced a disproportionate number of important and influential photographers without whom the medium would be much the poorer, especially in the period between the two world wars.
At the turn of the century the country was affluent and photography was a popular activity for aristocrat and bourgeois alike. During the 1914-18 war photography competitions were held by the Hungarian army, for which the prizes were attractive, encouraging many to take up the medium. Security prevented any being published, but the winners names became well-known. A culture of photography flourished, but sadly, it was those that emigrated who became internationally famous, though the reputations of the many who remained are only lately being recognised or restored.
The defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I left Hungary shrunken to 5,800 square kilometres from 200,000, its population reduced by two-thirds to 7.5 million. Political and economic turmoil fomented a revolt shortly after the end of the war which brought in a republic, then a Communist dictatorship before that too was overthrown by revolution, after which right-wing Admiral Miklos Horthy ruled for 25 years, suppressing dissent and driving away many of the best minds, physicist Leo Szilard, the nuclear physicist Edward Teller, the mathematician John von Neumann, and Nobel laureates, the biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and the physicist Eugene Wigner, as well as photographers, to other countries.
In 1920 Brassai (Gyula Halász,1899–1984) left for Berlin then settled in Paris in 1924. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) renewed the Bauhaus in Germany and transplanted it to Chicago when he escaped Nazism. The Capas both left a mark, Robert (Endre Friedmann, 1913–1954) his great war pictures in Spain and China and Cornell (Kornél Friedmann, 1918–2008) the International Center of Photography in New York. Martin Munkasci (1896–1963) who had moved to Berlin in 1928 also went to America in 1934, bringing instantaneity and location shots to fashion photography, soon followed by Andre Kertesz (1894–1985) in 1936 who had first moved to Paris 1925 and then New York where his Modernism proved infectious.
When its soon-to-be-greats had left, Hungarian photography didn’t wither; an idealising romantic ethnography flourished on the home soil and the native pride in Hungarian nationalism, inspiring a picturesque in images of village life that only sometimes degenerates into sentimentality.
Kertesz was not alone in making his dignified pictures of peasants in unspoiled villages and peaceful, rural landscapes; Karoly Escher (*1890), who died on this date in 1966, and Kalman Boronkay (1893-1941) both were seeking a true national character in these people and landscapes. Alongside continued an elegant late Pictorialism exemplified in Emery Revesz-Biro (1895–1975), to be progressively replaced by a modernist style that joined in the international movement to which the expatriates were vigorously contributing.
The son of a carpenter, Escher was brought up in difficult financial circumstances in the capital, where he made his first camera from a cigar box and an old microscope, which he replaced eventually with a real camera from a local antique dealer. A keen student his parents could not afford his education and he left early to become a shop assistant, though being physically weak he struggled, but discovered he had a talent for technical drawing. At eighteen he was invited to be technical drawing instructor at the Ganz electric tram factory, moving in 1911 to the Schlick-Nicholson plant in a similar position when the companies merged.
György Gadányi reports the discovery of a cache of pictorialist works by Károly. At Ganz he learned the basics of the demanding, painterly processes of bromoil and gum printing from engineer Imre Belházy, the picturesque effects of which he would have seen by Constant Puyo (November 12, 1857 – October 6, 1933), Heinrich Kühn (1866–1944) and Edward Steichen (1879–1973) at exhibitions in Budapest.
They went on photo tours on weekends; Escher equipped with his 4.5×6 vest pocket Ernemann folding camera made in Dresden, probably the Heag XV for plates or sheet film, of which the 1911 version sported a 1:6.8/8cm Ernastigmat lens and an Automat shutter with speeds up to 1/100 sec.
Escher didn’t exhibit these pictures, excellent examples of the craft though they are, and not did he publish them, probably setting them aside as juvenilia, but his familiarity with the small hand-held camera prepared him for future work in which his relationship with his subjects was so important.
In 1916 he succeeded in finding work with Kino-Riport, owned by János Frölich (1873–1926) and worked as a film reporter for the Red Film Reporter for the Soviet republic in 1919. Subsequently, he worked as a cinematographer with Star Film, his first feature a drama about poet and national hero Bródy Sándor (1863–1924) realist author and journalist.
In 1928, because of the crisis in silent film with the arrival of sound, he accepted an invitation to work for the magazine Az Est (Tarde) as a replacement for the famous Martin Munkacsi who moved on to Berlin.
It was in his work for the photo supplement to the journal Pesti Napló (Diary of Budapest) that he became a press photographer known for covering major events such as saboteur Szilveszter Matuska’s blowing up of the Vienna Express on Biatorbágy viaduct that left 22 dead and 17 seriously injured, on September 13, 1931, shortly after midnight (above).
In 1927, an international exposition introduced the German “new objectivity”, it encouraged an innovative semi-abstract modernism within Hungary, an influence of which appears in one of Escher’s better known works, a double exposure of swings at a fairground, although the response within Hungary to the 1929 Stuttgart exhibition Film und Foto was limited, despite its inclusion of many photographs by Moholy-Nagy and seven by Kertész.
At the beginning of his photojournalistic career he traded his Heag XV for the legendary Ermanox 4.5 x 6cm (with its then superfast f1.8 lens) and a 6 x 9cm Plaubel Makina (above). In the thirties with the spread of small films, his favorite machine became the 1936 Contax II, made by Zeiss Ikon to compete with the Leica; it was a little cheaper, had a bayonet-mount lens (later adopted by Nikon) and removable back for ease of loading compared to Leica’s fiddly ‘blind’ drop-in loading. Escher was a pioneer of 35mm photography and the use of movement without flash.
In 1939, after Pesti Napló ceased publication, Escher started working for Híd (‘Bridge’) and Film, Színház, Irodalom (‘Film, Theatre, Literature’), and after 1945, for Képes Figyelő (‘Picture Observer’).
Under Horthy’s regime (1 March 1920 – 15 October 1944) those who practiced social commentary would often find their work suppressed and exhibitions closed; such photographers were Tibor Bass (1909–1973), Sándor (Fruhof) Gönci (1907-1996), Kata Kálmán (1909–1978), Lajos Lengyel (1904-1978) and Lajos Tabák (1904–2007) and prominently among whom was Károly Escher.
They were outraged by the inequities of capitalism and rural feudalism and its dehumanising work which earned only inadequate clothing and meagre meals for impoverished men, women and children.
These “Szociofoto” photographers produced unflinching, graphic realism driven by a reforming zeal and were an early direct influence on the work of Robert Capa.
Escher was not commited to any single political stream, and was as active under the first Communist revolutionary government as during the Horthy regime, during the Second World War (though little exists in the archive of this period), and in the subsequent communist rule. A late episode in his life represents his nationalist spirit; his 1955 restoration of the famous Petőfi dagerreotype.
In 1948, on the occasion of the centenary of the Hungarian War of Independence, the question was raised; what did the flamboyant Hungarian poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) actually look like, he who died in battle and famously wrote;
One thought keeps going round my head:
The thought of dying in my bed!
Slowly withering like some overblown
Flower the greenfly gnaws and makes his own;
Wasting away like an old candlestick
In a deserted room, grown pale and sick.
Numbers of painted portaits and engravings of him existed, but excitement mounted when it became known that there was an authentic photograph that Petőfi had had made in Pécs around 1845–46, as a gift to his bride, Szendrey Juliet;
Freedom and love
Are dear to me;
My life I give,
Sweet love, for thee,
Yet love I give
The first reference to the existence of a photographic portrait was in a letter of about 1870, which said,
… here I send you Petőfi’s photograph, it’s in a bad state if you want to use it, so quickly do it because it worsens day by day, it fades.
Around the time of the making of the portrait, Petőfi was writing his epic John the Valiant (1845), a folk-tale notable for its length (370 quatrains divided into 27 chapters) from which comes the Hungarian Nemzeti dal (“National Song”).
In the centenary year, a young literary historian, György Rózsavölgyi from the National Museum, discovered that the above writing originated from a member of the Beliczai family, so it could be assumed that they could provide some information on the fate of the image. The oldest surviving member of the family realized that; “Grandpa did say that there was a Petőfi photo somewhere, but where, he did not know, he had never seen it.”
Finally, a search of cellar, an attic, and many old chests, uncovered a 7 × 10 cm large daguerreotype crushed under glass in a very sorry state, covered in dust, dirt, mould and glass fragments. The silver surface that formed the picture was completely blackened, so much so that whether it was Petőfi’s photograph none could say, though after some cleaning part of one eye and a traditional Hungarian high neckerchief emerged.
Copies were made of the faded original, but for a long time nothing else was done with it until Escher, as relates, was urged by a friend to look at it. It was in 1953 the portrait had lain in the museum for five years;
We agreed to use a similar, old, bad daguerreotype image to find what might be retrieved from the picture. I was given a 2 × 3 cm, also completely oxidized. After browsing many old books I found a recipe. The description is as follows:
The silver image is taken out of the glass. It is cleaned from dirt, dirt, put in a bowl in pure alcohol, in which any resin and fat layer may be dissolved. The operation is completed in a few minutes. After a short wash (distilled water) the plate is placed in a pre-prepared 1% cyanide solution. The dark oxide layer in the picture disappears in this solution and the image is clear. The process time is 5 minutes. If during the operation you notice that the image is developing or the image begins to weaken, bathing is immediately stopped and the plate washed in distilled water.
The experiment was brilliantly successful. It was a pleasure to see how the black layer disappeared during the operation and how the image was generated. It’s just finished in five minutes. With a great surprise I discovered an unknown photograph of Lajos Kossuth amongst the test plates.
My employers were delighted with the successful work, but would still not give me the Petőfi image because they had another question: how long is such a regenerated image going to last?
We waited for half a year, and the regenerated experimental image did not change. But still I did not get the oxidized little silver plate of Petőfi’s portrait. Two years went by and the test image was still unchanged, but the picture of Petőfi further deteriorated two years. In February this year  I met an artist friend who was working on Petőfi’s study. I told him of the case. The next day I had the official go-ahead. I could get to work. Just as in the previous experiment I used only chemistry to restore the Petőfi photograph from the destruction without touching it with a brush or pencil. It can be concluded that this is really Petőfi’s single and authentic photograph [a more genuine visual description of him than the sculptures and paintings made well after Petőfi’s death] which were inventions of fantasy.
As we take in the new Petőfi, the first impression is of his eyes! Amazing blazing, glowing eyes. The contemporaries who wrote of Petőfi could not forget that stunning gaze. A fine little black-haired mustache, a small French beard, a vaulted forehead appeared on the little silver sheet.
The Petőfi likeness issue has been permanently resolved.
The identity of the likely photographer, the Hungarian Shakespearian actor Egressy Gábor (1808–1866), may be confirmed from this smiling (self-?) portrait, unreversed, in a similar pose and chair.
In 1960 Escher received the Diploma of the International Photographers’ Association (AFIAP), and after three years his Qualified Degree (EFIAP). The Hungarian State awarded him the Silver Order of Work, and in 1965 a Merited Art Award. In the same year, a survey exhibition opened in the Hungarian National Gallery.
The Országos Széchényi Könyvtár (National Széchényi Library) holds about 38,000 of his negatives, though these too, especially the nitrate films, are now wanting restoration (see Judit Papp’s DLA Dissertation “Snapshots” in the XX. Károly Escher, photojournalist, photographer’s work, survey, examination and preservation of the conservation heritage of film-negatives of the National Széchényi Library (in Hungarian language).